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Yunus Khan, archivist, columnist, researcher of film music, and radio jockey, Vividh Bharati. Below is a transcript of his conversation with Rita Kothari, Professor, Ashoka University.


Rita Kothari: I have been listening avidly to Aapki Farmaish; Aaj Ke Fankaar and many other programmes on Vividh Bharati. You have been associated with All India Radio for years and lent to it a dignified voice, an engaged ear, a gentle interlocution. Today I would like to hear from you what you think has been the impact and place of film songs in Indian society.

So let me begin with my first question. What is the importance of songs in India? Do you feel it’s different from other parts of the world?

Yunus Khan: Absolutely. Songs are far more important to India than any other country. It is beyond the imagination that in other countries people could live in and with songs from birth to death, in fact even beyond death. Filmi gaane hamaari saanso mein ghule hain. They are the air we breathe; songs are suffused in our breath. I mean, just see there are songs playing on our lips when we fall in love. Also when our hearts are broken. Also when we marry. And also when our loved ones pass away. We have songs for every occasion, including for didi ka devar! So songs are not only about our immediate relations, but also other kinships. That should tell us how important songs are to this country.


And do you believe that this intense relationship has continued intact?

I believe so. You must have noticed that we continue to receive farmaish – requests for specific songs to be played. We all have a ‘mera wala gaana.’ And not just the state radio, but the market is constantly addressing this desire in the form of Amazon Music, Spotify, and YouTube – just look at the traffic on those sites. Nearly half the country is listening to songs while travelling, while working at home. Half the country’s population is humming!


Many people change their lives if inspired by a song to do so. Have you encountered such instances?

Indeed. Songs find a deep place in life sometimes. Since I am associated with the radio, my examples come from there. Once an aged man covered a tidy distance to come and meet me. He walked with the help of a stick. He said to me that on the previous Sunday when I played the song, ‘Aaj jaane ki zidd na karo’ it made him want to come and tell me something. His wife had sung this song when he had gone to ‘see’ her before they married. They had a long innings of couplehood but she is no more. He could not begin to tell me how much he had wept, how much flashed before his eyes when I played this song. Similarly, another person who heard an old song, ‘Chalta chal dhoop ho ya chhaon ho’mentioned that he found reasons to live amidst despair and joy; with alternating shades of life. There have been innumerable instances when songs have inhabited a deep place in peoples’ lives that those stories are unbelievable. People have given up thoughts of suicide upon listening to certain songs.


Why do we like the pathos (dard) in songs? I mean we enjoy it, how does that make sense?

We all need a partner or collaborator in our lives. The true meaning of life emerges through sharing. Dardbhare gaane, songs with pathos, take the burden off us by helping us share our lives with them. Like human beings do for each other. And not everyone has confidants who will respect confidentiality; become co-sharers of pain. In that sense, dard bhare gaane become our true companions. Really speaking, songs of sadness and pathos help us even in our tiny everyday struggles. Pathos is a salve, that’s all.


Do you think my questions are relevant only to a certain generation or demography? Or do you think they are particularly relevant to those who live in villages and smaller towns?

Look, songs are popular everywhere, regardless of a city or village. That being said, urban India listens to songs the most during commuting for work every day. They may listen to them through radio or some other medium, that doesn’t matter. Villages, on the other hand, listens to songs while doing humdrum jobs through the day. But we can’t deny the fact that songs are everywhere. Because life is everywhere. It’s true that every generation likes its own songs; not everyone is listening to the same song. New songs with a short life span and shelf life are the heartbeats of the younger generation. Their feet tap to the notes.


The caption for Vividh Bharati is ‘desh ki surili dhadkhan’ or the melodious beat of the nation. How far is this claim true? What is its expanse? Does it manage to reach effectively in the southern states? Does it reach the North East states that have been hostile to Hindi?

You will be surprised to know that Vividh Bharati has had a deep impact in the North East and also the southern states. During our ‘phone in’ programmes how many times we hear people admit this freely and say that cinema and filmi songs have helped them improve their Hindi. Let me tell you a delightful fact that many people from the far East find it difficult to speak Hindi, but they sing songs accurately. It’s quite amazing. Similarly, Kerala is a huge fan of Rafi Saab. The deewanas there are really of a different order.


Which of your songs-based programmes draw most traction and why?

Bhoole Bisre Geet and Sadabahar nagme. Imagine that a film like Naya Daur which came out in 1957, right? Even today, after all these years, the songs from this film continue to be heard. Even today we continue to connect with them. That is the reason for this everlasting success of such programmes. Vividh Bharati is synonymous with old songs and old songs are still very popular.


There are intense battles waged by fans over the competing claims of greatness of singers, lyricists, music directors. Fan clubs are very common, and people devote die-hard affiliations to them. Do you have any interesting stories around such craziness,such deewangi?

Arre, plenty of stories! There is a toli, a group devoted to Shankar Jaikishan, one for Laxmikant Pyarelal and Anand Bakshi followers club. The Pancham fans are a distinct group. All these groups are very active on social and mobile media. All these groups argue with each other so much that I don’t know where to begin [laughs]. Such groups will not tolerate the worship of any other God but their own. But there should be some democracy in this – or at least equal tolerance. As I said to you on a previous occasion, we have to observe sarvadharmasamabhav! How would we radio-wallahs manage otherwise? There’s a gentleman who always complains that we don’t play Laxmikant Pyarelal enough, regardless of which programme we do. It’s a perennial complaint with him.


What kind of life do we associate with the radio? Poor, middle class, or the rich?

All kinds of lives are associated with the radio. Perhaps less among the elite. But some individuals among the elite may have association with songs, and hence the radio, at least notionally. There’s a businessman we know in Gujarat whose trade spans several states. In every office in every state, he has made sure to keep a radio. Actors like Tabbu and Rishi Kapoor have a deep and ongoing relation with the radio; it is quite evident from our conversations with them. So really speaking it is an individual craze. But that being said, I’d say the lower and middle class is the chief bastion of the radio.


How has the language of radio changed over these years? How have Hindi, Hindustani, Urdu (if they are indeed different things!) been adopted and what kind of thinking has gone behind language changes?

It has changed a lot. Now young radio jockeys speak a very khichdi language on private radio channels. This includes mistakes of pronunciation, of grammar, or intonation and all sorts. However, there are a few who are more careful, and although their numbers may be small, they are quite effective. There is no problem using mixed language on radio, but at least the language needs to be correct. There is a challenge about using elegant language. The language adopted by the young radio jockeys is sometimes lightweight and inelegant. We should be able to connect with people through simple and clean language, with a touch of delicacy.


Let’s stay with the world of songs a little more so that it feels you are taking us through a journey even in this interview.

I am ready to talk about songs anytime, even in my sleep! I have lived songs so much. Yesterday there was a programme on Jaan Nisaar Akhtar on Facebook. I suddenly remembered many of his songs. Just see what Jaan Nisaar says, ‘yeh dil aur unki nigaahon ke saaye.’ This heart and the shadows of his gaze. How beautifully he conveys a woman’s delicate emotion.

Pahaadon ko chanchal, kiran chumti hai

Hava har nadi ka badan chumti hai

Yahaan se vahaan tak, hain chahon ke saaye

Yeh dil aur unki nigaahon ke saaye ...

(The playful ray kisses the mountaintops

The breeze kisses the body of every river

From here to there, lie shadows of desire

This heart and the shadows of his gaze.)

Notice the fragility and brittleness of this imagery. We can’t listen to a song and stay only on the surface. We must do a deep dive. We must listen to its instruments, the composition, the words and stanzas of a song. I was listening to this song yesterday, for instance, Mausam hai aashikana. Suddenly I paused at a stanza that goes, Suraj kaheen bhi jaaye, tum par na dhoop aaye. Never mind where the sun shines, may you be spared its scorching heat.I felt immensely joyful. Do listen to the entire antara:

Never mind where the sun shines, may you be spared its heat.

The shadows of these tresses beckon you

Come love, let me make you a shamiana from my eyelids.

The weather is lover-like.

There are such hidden gems in songs; we need to drown ourselves in this ocean and enjoy.